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REVIEWING

Some Luck

By Jane Smiley

Alfred A. Knopf - New York | 2014 | 395 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Jane Smiley

The Magnificent Langdons

Some excellent news about 2015: in late April we will see the release of Early Warning, Volume II in Jane Smiley’s saga of the Langdons, an Iowa farm family, through a century of monumental changes in America, collectively titled The Last Hundred Years, and by the end of the year Volume III will be out.

The first volume, Some Luck, left Walter and Rosanna Langdon’s children on a cliffhanger—a psychological cliffhanger, that is, in the sense that their lives as adults were just beginning, and as a reader you come to understand the complications of their lives better than they do themselves.

Will Frank Langdon, the oldest and a handsome daredevil last seen stuck in suburbia circa 1953, find a place for himself as America grows fat and complacent?

How will neglected Claire, the youngest, get through the loss of her beloved father? The surviving children between Frank and Claire, chronologically, are Joe, who is staying in Iowa and becoming a scientifically inclined farmer; Lillian, who has married the half-sinister, half-doofus Arthur and hasn’t fully figured out that he’s embroiled with the cold-war-era CIA; and Henry, the literary scholar who has just fallen in love with his first cousin, a half-Jewish girl brought up as a Communist.

The drama, in spite of all that happens as the 20th century unfolds, is mostly a matter of drama from the interior, a testimony to Smiley’s intricate portraits of her cast of personalities.  Some Luck flings the oldsters right out of a world of plowhorses to the age of the automobile, each chapter encompassing one year, starting with 1920.

As the first chapter begins, 25-year-old Walter Langdon has come home from the Great War and married the beautiful Rosanna Vogel, who comes from a farm about a mile down the road, but a different world seeing as how her people are Catholic and speak German.

Each volume of the trilogy is to cover 33 years. I’m not the first to note that the structure, like The Divine Comedy, is a trilogy of 33 cantos each (for Dante, one extra in the form of the introduction). But for the Langdons, if there is a heaven, a hell and a purgatory they’re all interwoven, a matter of bountiful harvests, brand new Fords, drought, the Depression, fatal accidents, falling in love, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany’s surrender, a bumper crop of post-War babies.

In 1920 the newlyweds Walter and Rosanna also have a new baby, Frank. The baby has Rosanna’s looks. Walter thinks he’s seen such perfection reproduced in some lines of cows. “The calves looked stamped out by a cookie cutter.” Walter is clear about how his genetic code will play out in his adult life: “Walter thought he probably grew too much oats , but if you were a Langdon and your mother was a Chick, then it was natural to plant oats, eat oats, feed oats, bed oat straw and most of all, enjoy all the stages of oat cultivation.”

His parents and Rosanna’s parents, all farmers, search each newborn and attribute such characteristics as blue eyes and sweet-natured temperaments to the lineage, as if they were examining the season’s crop of corn.  As the 20th century wind its way through Iowa, it becomes clear that each Langdon is going to be an utterly unique individual, yet they’re like a much crossbred crop with traits that will burst out here and there that can be traced back to a forebear.  

The urge to leave the farm seems more dominant in Rosanna, but even Walter has shown a streak of rebellion that will reappear in his own kids. He could have brought his bride to his own family farm, but rather than live with his domineering father he has taken a chance with a mortgage and procured his own farm.   Rosanna, on the other hand, is more acutely aware that there’s another world out there, and she relishes the chance to grab a miniscule slice of it.

In 1923 she drives the buggy into town, tying the horses between a Ford and a Chevrolet. The quotidian purpose of her trip is to sell her eggs and butter, but the passage offers an illuminating glimpse of a young woman and her innate talents.  She’s a good negotiator with the local shopkeeper and she’s known in those parts for her superb flavored butter.

“It was lovely how even the most elementary social intercourse lifted her spirits,” is the way Smiley describes Rosanna’s thoughts. Later that same day she reflects, “there were so many things Rosanna could have been besides a farm wife, she thought. But it was not a source of regret—it was a source of pride.”

Rosanna understands intuitively that she has given birth not to calves but to full-blown human children with fetchingly distinct personalities. She’s fine with Frank going to high school in Chicago. Points of view switch from one Langdon to another throughout the story –which is part of the way Smiley infuses her tale with a delicious sense that someone is always hanging from a precarious place -- and we follow Frank’s restless spirit through his youthful adventures.

In Chicago he falls in with a crowd of delinquents even while he’s learning a new perception of the world from Rosanna’s Trotskyite sister, Eloise, and her Jewish husband –and the whole time, young Frankie still excels in school.  In 1937, Walter and Rosanna get a letter from Frank’s high school principal admonishing them to let their smart-without-even-trying son go to college.

“The whole prospect bothered Walter, but not in any way that he could express,” Smiley writes. Walter knows it isn’t narrow-mindedness. “It was much more that there were plenty of things out in the world that Frankie would learn about, and that he would have no scruples at all.” Learn he does, and scruples aren’t Frank’s strong suit.

Frank will have a clandestine sado-masochistic sort of love affair with Eunice but end up marrying Andy, who craves fine clothes and isn’t any more ready to settle into 1950s-style adulthood than Frank is.  In World War II he finds a calling for his photographic memory and his adrenaline addiction, training as a sniper.

He traipses through Africa, Sicily and Corsica, then through the ruins of Germany after the surrender, with a buddy who loots treasures, the start of a career in buying and selling remains, with Frank as an occasional investor.  Later, on orders from his brother-in-law Arthur, Frank will seduce a suspected Soviet agent and report on her comings and goings.

Still, despite the film-noirish and James Bond-ish touches, Frank will grope his way through life like most people. Not every action will have a big consequence, even when the stakes are highest during the Depression and the War.  Smiley told one interviewer: "You can't have constant drama all the time, or the reader will be overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed or even worse, if operatic mayhem appeared every year the reader might start to find that the excess becomes predictable and melodramatic. Smiley is far too skilled a writer for that; her deceptively spare prose promises only that, as in reality, sometimes bad things will happen, sometimes good things will happen, sometimes life will just go on.

Walter could lose his farm in the Depression; some neighbors do. One day in 1935, he falls into the well. A farm can be a dangerous place, and Walter might drown. His land is now worth only $11 an acre, maybe, and he’s down to four milk cows, “which he didn’t mind compared with starving to death.”  He thinks about ending it all. He wonders if Rosanna would miss him, and he isn’t sure. But his shoulders won’t relax and let him sink; his body wants to save itself, no matter what.  He thinks of the incident as a close call and he doesn’t even tell Rosanna. 

The passage becomes, instead of a crisis, an insight into Walter’s steady stoicism and the continuous hum of his life as a creature of the land with longings he can’t quite articulate.  But as a reader I’m waiting with baited breath: will an heir to Walter’s temperament also contemplate suicide? And how will it end in a setting far away from Depression-era Iowa.

Already in Some Luck, we’ve seen the juxtaposition of the grownup and married Lillian’s unspoken discontent against her mother’s proud realization of her unrealized potential.  In 1946 Lillian is puttering around her Baltimore home, her thoughts revolving around how little she really knows about Arthur. Smiley’s description of the young bride’s longings shriek from between the lines, with a few well-chosen words that reveal all that is really eating at Lillian:   “During the day, she tried to spend her time appreciating her apartment in an imposing brick building with white trim that rather reminded her of her high school... She had a small but warm bathroom, reliable hot water, and a deep and satisfying bathtub. She had a gas range.... There was part [of the neighborhood] that ran up to the boundary of the insane asylum....She liked to shop at the Giant supermarket, and she especially enjoyed something called ‘Cheerios.’”

But you really know that Lillian has left the farm—and doesn’t know where she’s headed—when her three children wake up early on Easter morning of 1952. Little Timmy discovers that, besides the Easter baskets and chocolate rabbits and dyed eggs, there is a whole bowl of white eggs in the refrigerator. With, of course, no conscious idea that his grandmother counted the pennies she earned peddling her eggs through the Depression, he says, “Let’s hide the eggs.”

Like a family sitcom of the era, when Mommy and Daddy wake up, “it was Daddy who sat on the first egg, the one in the corner of the sofa.... Yellow gunk was stuck to his shorts and dripping over shards of eggshell on the couch.”

With all of these vivid strains of human existence, the only parts of Some Luck that feel like throwaway material are those in which Smiley writes from the point of view of a baby, pre-true awareness. The first time she does this is with Frank Langdon at five months old. “Now that he was sitting, he could also drop the spoon, and then, very carefully, pick it up again. Before learning to sit he had enjoyed lying on his back and waving the spoon in the air.”

The generic baby-discovering-life does nothing to foreshadow the person Frank will become.

On the other hand, I can’t wait to see what happens to grownup Frank. He’s 31 in 1951 and there’s something ominous in the air. Andy drinks too much and is afraid of the Russians – or maybe she’s really afraid of a life with Frank. And Frank himself, on a stroll through his quiet neighborhood, Floral Park, New York, “now the most average of men---he felt more frightened than he had ever felt before in his life. There had been a fear he’d known in the army, even after he was used to the explosions: a sudden nearby boom would make his balls jump, and seem to shoot an electric charge right up his spine. This was not like that. This was vaster and higher, the same feeling he’d had in dreams....he had been walking down the road, and the road had turned into a tree limb across an abyss, and he was out in the middle, surrounded only by air...”

Early Warning will take the descendants of Walter and Rosanna Langdon from 1954 to 1986. Between them Frank and Lillian have seven children as of the end of Volume I. The family will presumably confront the McCarthy hearings – will Arthur turn in Eloise? – the Kennedy assassination, the first moon landing, the civil rights movement, the back-to-the-land movement, LSD, EST, Ronald Reagan.

A millennial generation with no first-hand knowledge of Walter and Rosanna will grow up in Volume III, which will cover 1987 to 2019 –thereby hurling a few years into the future. There is, as a preview in Publishers’ Weekly suggests, a danger of too many descendants diluting the effervescent life stories that make Some Luck such a page-turner.

Still, I can’t wait to see how the various Langdon’s lives play out. I’m also eager to see how strains of Walter and Rosanna show through, perhaps unexamined by the characters themselves but detectable to the reader--like a drawing of a cityscape in which, if you look hard enough you’ll find the hidden face of Grandma.  


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REVIEWING

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward

Bloomsbury | 2013 | 256 pages | $26.00

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League<

By Jeff Hobbs

Scribner | 2014 | 406 pages | $27.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Early Death

Recently I read two books about an American truth—the early deaths of African American men.  One book, Men We Reap, was written by National Book Award author Jesmyn Ward; the other book called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League was written by Jeff Hobbs.

The books both delve deeply into this horrific phenomenon, but their approaches couldn’t be more different.  Whereas Ward writes about the early death of five African American men whom she grew up with, including her brother, Hobbs writes about the African American roommate he had at Yale for four years.

Both books try to avoid stereotyping and sociological explanations.  Both are careful to assert that there are no reasons, no answers, and the deaths are horrible, perplexing, and heart wrenching, yet because Ward writes from the “inside” rather than the “outside” her book begins with more advantages.

Ward’s book is by no means perfect, and perhaps being an insider has disadvantages as well, but because she grew up with these boys, because she writes about brother/blood, she never has to apologize.  She does not have to write carefully as does Hobbs, whose book has an underlying note of Maybe I’m not the one who should write this, but that’s the subtext of Hobbs’ carefully detailed story.  But I get ahead of myself.

In Men We Reaped, Ward writes about her own experiences, intertwining them with the lives of the men who die; this is one of the strengths of the book.  Ward, who grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi, was one of the few children in her circle to “escape” one of the poorest counties in the countries—she goes to Stanford for college and then to Michigan for graduate school

Yet the pull of Mississippi is always with her (the broad trees, the sky itself, her family) and she surprisingly returns to the place that kills so many of her male acquaintances, friends, and family.  She reacts to these untimely deaths with horror and insight and yet she is a part of their lives, as she parties with these boys/men in the heavy nights of summer:

“Some of my relatives on my mother’s side and my father’s, have abused crack, on and off, for years.  I can’t fault them for it, Charine always says when we talk about it, that’s just the high they like.  Fuck it.  It helps them cope.  And then:  They’re grown.  I understand her now, but I did not understand her point in the summer of 2004.  Did not see the way liquor had been my drug for years.  Was not connecting the relief I felt when I drank with the drugs others were using, or even thinking that it could be the same for my relatives, the same for my siblings, or the same for Rog.  I knew that I lived in a place where hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog, but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use.” 

This is in the chapter about the death of Roger Eric Daniels III who dies of a drug overdose at age 23.  She also writes about the untimely death of Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, and Joshua Adam Dedeaux, her brother.  All of them died unexpectedly, early, and violently.

Unlike dying by a gun or an overdose, Ward’s brother dies because of a hit and run accident.  In this case, he is driving home from work on a summer night after his shift as a valet.  (The white drunk driver pays little for killing her brother.)  The death of her brother seems especially without explanation to Ward and remains horrific, a raw wound, all these years later.

Because Ward writes from the inner rather than the outsider perspective, what she says is stated in a matter-of-fact way; for example, her father has ten children with four different women.  This might seem like “statistical evidence” about the “disintegration” of the black family, but because Ward relays this information with no bitterness, but rather factually, the reader also takes this at face value.  (But sometimes I would wonder How can you stand a father who could leave you and have so many different women?).  But because of Ward’s stance, the men in the story are not characters, but come across as real flesh-and-blood men

If Ward displays any bitterness in the book, it’s towards the white people who have assisted her.  Wards’ mother’s employer (her mother works as a maid) sees talent in Ward and pays for her tuition to a prestigious private middle and high school.  Ward seems almost angry about this gift (and as a reader I could and could not understand this).  Sometimes I wished Ward would have talked more about her experiences—her life at Stanford and her experiences in Michigan, but this is the inherent problem with the memoir form.  What the reader is interested in is not always the story that the writer wants to give.

And Mississippi itself is a beautiful foil to this story; perhaps Mississippi is the character Ward loves the most and she admirably describes her untainted love.  Mississippi is the whole and entire everything for her, as is her beloved brother.

Like Ward, Robert Peace of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, gets the benefit of a full scholarship from a white man (in this case the benefactor hears Robert give a speech and gives him a blank check to go anywhere—he chooses Yale).  At Yale, Robert ends up having Dobbs, as a roommate, a rich kid (his father is a doctor) who will end up writing about him after he dies.  So the project of the book itself is complicated—will the friend of Peace who writes the book end up prospering from his friend’s death?  Can a white guy who has no clue about his friend’s early experiences write a book with the degree of insight needed?  The answer is yes and no

Yes, because Dobbs approaches these “problems” with a commendable forthrightness, and no because from his outsider perspective he never seems to grasp what makes his friend tick.

   And in general Peace is an enigma—a boy with a brilliant mind, yet a guy who can be lazy; a boy who readily accepts help, but then seems gutted by the help he receives.  Because Dobbs wants to find the “truth” of the story and unravel the mystery of why a promising young black man ends up murdered in a friend’s house, he starts at the beginning…  and I mean the very beginning.

I assumed that the book would start with Robert Peace’s Yale experiences when the author knew him and back-track from there, but instead the book begins with the first day of Robert Peace’s life:

 “Why is the air not on?” Jackie Peace asked from the back of the car.
“It wears the engine,” her mother, Francis, replied from the driver’s seat.  “You can’t bear it for four blocks?”
“He just feels hot to me, real hot.”  And then, when her mother chuckled: “What’s funny?”

“You’re a brand-new mama and that’s why you have no idea.”

“Idea of what now?”

“Babies are strong.  They can handle just about anything.”

Robert DeShaun Peace, the baby in question, lay sleepy-eyed and pawing in Jackie’s arms.  He was a day and a half old, eight pounds, ten ounces…”

   I was a bit taken aback, I suppose, because starting there seemed journalistic to be sure, but also a bit disingenuous.  Because I knew that the author was friends with Peace, I expected the book to start in an entirely different place, perhaps a Yale dorm room.  I can understand why Dobbs chose to begin the way he did—he wanted us to have an accurate account from the beginning, but how accurate could this ever be?

Dobbs interviewed acquaintances, friends, and lovers of Robert Peace, but he especially seemed to rely on the words of Peace’s mother, Jackie.  Jackie comes across in the book as a no-nonsense, hard-working, rarely smiling, almost frightening woman.  Is this really how she is, or is this Dobbs’ impression of her? 

Dobbs relates the early life of Robert Peace with remarkable detail.  He describes Jackie meeting Peace’s father (they never marry because Jackie is distrustful of marriage in general).  And he describes the city of Newark where Peace grew up. Dobbs mentions that Peace was called “the professor” in day care because he is so smart and he describes his early education (in private schools—a strain for his mother who works in the cafeteria of a hospital). 

One of the most tragic aspects of Peace’s life involves his father who gets accused of murder when Peace is a young boy.  From then until Peace’s death, his father remains behind bars (except for a brief respite lasting a couple of months).  In spite of his father’s incarceration, Peace’s father remains a huge figure of influence for Peace. Like his son, the father is known for his almost perfect memory as well as his curiosity; together they work diligently on Peace’s homework.  One feels that under different circumstances, the father would have become what Peace becomes—or at least he would have received a college education.

Drugs and drug dealing are an integral part of Newark.  The choices you make as a young man lead you to being a part of the drug dealers, in competition with the drug dealers, or above the drug dealers.  No choices are good.  Through his private school years, Peace is seen as a role model—a brilliant student who is also a gifted athlete on the water polo team, but he also parties with his friends and teammates.  In fact the relationship he has between four close friends is a touching part of the book.  But drugs become even more important at Yale.

At Yale, Peace becomes a dealer for the rich kids who surround him.  He carefully pockets the money he makes and imagines a future.  He becomes a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major.  When he gets confronted by a faculty member who suspects he is dealing, Peace downplays the situation, and there are no consequences.  Perhaps Peace’s own laissez-faire attitude towards drugs is his downfall. 

Back from Yale and struggling with what to do next, he gets more and more involved with drug dealing (at the same time he teaches at the private school where he went and then he eventually gets a job as luggage handler at an airport).  This “fall” from Yale graduate to lowly baggage handler is wistfully told my Dobbs.

But I think the answer to why Peace may have wanted to be a baggage handler might be tied deeper with Peace’s psychology.  Peace always said that the happiest he had ever been was on a trip to Rio de Janeiro.  As a baggage handler he was allotted free tickets to all over the world—and travel he did, returning to Rio de Janeiro and also visiting Croatia and many other places.

Perhaps being able to escape was essential to Peace.  Perhaps he did not want to become a professor or work in a lab (no matter the accolades and awards).  And yet he must have felt pressure between his desire and what was expected of him—the GREAT HOPE from Newark, who surely couldn’t WASTE HIS LIFE AWAY.

As I write this, I feel rueful.  I look at the pictures in the book and see a smiling guy, a happy boy turned into a handsome man.  I, too, think What happened?  I think of the four-hundred people who came to the funeral, the unusual mix of working-class people from Newark, as well as the “elite,” the professors and students from Yale.

It is true that Rob touched many.  I go to the comments on Amazon.com about the book (there are many).  Here’s the gist: You didn’t know Rob.  You can’t tell his story!!! and This is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.  I’m glad Jeff Dobbs wrote this story.

And I’m glad that Jesmyn Ward wrote her story.  Between the two books, we have the deaths of six African American men.  We have attempts at an explanation for this phenomenon.  But we don’t have any answers.  Sadly, there are no answers.


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REVIEWING

Crazy Love You

By Lisa Unger

Touchstone | 2015

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Crazy Love You is a fantastically fast read—one sitting—that quickly pulls us into the story of Ian and his two loves: Priss whom he’s known since childhood, redheaded, wild, over-the-top sexy Priss and sedate, white bread, private school-bred Megan, an overeducated, underemployed nanny, whom he hopes to marry.

From the get-go, we’re primed to expect trouble from the ex-girlfriend. We know it’s not going to be pretty.  Not only did Priss come to his rescue repeatedly when they were kids and he was a tailor made victim for classroom bullies, but she continues to be a force in his life, both positive and negative. She’s handed him the storyline for his acclaimed comic book series, Fatboy and Priss; he’s now, by most measures, rich and successful.  And she has not given up her habit of dropping in to his apartment uninvited for wild nights of boozing, drugging and sex.

We think we know what to expect until author Unger drops a bomb: no one has ever seen Priss.  Huh? Suddenly we get a Stephen King vibe coming in from left field. Oh, it’s that kind of story?

Like Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of Seven Gables, Unger gives us two scenarios, the rational and the supernatural, and leaves it up to us to decide.  Ian grows up in a trauma zone, he’s given to violent displays and acts of anger of which he has no memory, his mother ships off to the local mental hospital, his father withdraws. So maybe Ian has burnt down houses, beat up and killed off enemies?  He insists it’s all Priss’s doing, that she acts to protect him, that she’s the superhero in his story.  In truth, he seems rather passive and nerdy, though the evidence mounts up against him and the police, by the end, are circling the wagons.

Priss, meanwhile, flits about, an enticing, addictive, somewhat sinister presence in his life.  Unless he rids himself of her, he will never mature and take responsibility for his actions. Even his career is in jeopardy as readers of Fatboy and Priss are dropping off, and his editor is pressuring him to wind up the series, start anew.  But Ian can’t seem to extricate himself from his codependent relationship with Priss, on paper and in real life.

How will the action resolve?  Will Ian wind up with Priss or Megan? Will he face consequences for his actions—or are they Priss’s actions? Sit down in a comfortable recliner as I did or take this book on your next beach vacation to find out. Unger ties all the threads together in the end, giving us a satisfactory resolution to Ian’s dilemma, and one not completely expected.

Megan is a saint, returning for more, always on Ian’s side, his superego, always , always on the side of life.  Priss of course is pure id, all fire and impulse, her only imperative to protect Ian and fight his battles for him.  Ian himself is a bit too flaccid, far from a superhero type and not always someone we would want to emulate or admire.  But we’re on this journey with him, hoping he pulls himself together and it seems that he does, with a lot of help from his women. Perhaps his next comic book series will feature a bolder, more confident, more conventional male lead.


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